Sarah Jones: Appeals court overturns judgment in defamation suit for ex-Bengals cheerleader

Websites can't be liable for third-party posts

CINCINNATI - An appeals court threw out former Bengals cheerleader Sarah Jones' $338,000 victory in a defamation suit against, reaffirming that websites can't be held liable for third-party posts, even when they make false claims about someone's sexual conduct.

Google, Facebook and other Internet giants had watched the case closely, saying the result had the potential to chill online speech.

"I saved the Internet today," The owner Nik Richie proclaimed on Twitter Monday.

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Richie might not have been guilty of hyperbole, according to a Cincinnati lawyer.

Jack Greiner, a First Amendment attorney who filed briefs on behalf of many Internet companies in the case, said Monday that "the consequences could have been very problematic" if the ruling had stood.

"The concerns that Amazon and CNN and BuzzFeed and the other clients were as much as anything, to try to avoid the uncertainty that would have resulted," Greiner said. "Say a conservative website says, 'If you've got dirt on Obama, send it in,' would that make that website the creator of that content (and liable)? Under the trial court's ruling, I think it could."

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The Cincinnati-based 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that a Kentucky federal judge should not have allowed Jones'  lawsuit to proceed last year. The three-judge panel affirmed that the Communications Decency Act protects websites from lawsuits like Jones'.

In allowing Jones' case, Judge William Bertlesman had said the very name of Richie's website, the way he manages it and the personal comments he adds to many posts encourage offensive content.

Richie's website allows users to submit anonymous posts about anyone from the girl next door to professional athletes and politicians, often accusing them of promiscuity, criticizing their plastic surgery or picking apart their looks. Richie screens each post, decides what goes up and frequently adds commentary.

Jones' Cincinnati attorney, Chris Roach, said he is planning to ask the U.S. Supreme Court to review the case.

"(Richie) is using those basic editorial functions and the Communications Decency Act to get people to submit defamatory material so he can post it," Roach said. "That just doesn't go with the spirit of the law."

Jones didn't want to talk publicly about Monday's decision, her attorney said.

"She's still fighting, but she doesn't want to make any personal comments," said Roach.

Jones, 29, sued Richie for two anonymous posts on the gossip site in 2009. The first post said Jones had sex with various Bengals players; the second said her then-boyfriend had chlamydia and gonorrhea, and speculated that Jones did also. Jones said the posts were untrue and caused her severe mental anguish and embarrassment.

Last July, a Kenton County jury found the posts were substantially false and that Richie had acted with malice or reckless disregard by allowing them to be published, and awarded Jones $338,000.

At the time, Richie’s attorney, David Gingras, said Bertelsman improperly applied laws involving Internet content and expressed confidence that an appeals court would overturn the ruling. 

"I feel like one of those lawyers who has a client that just got out of death row from DNA and he's been sitting there for 20 years and we find out he was innocent all along," Gingras said Monday from his office in Scottsdale, Arizona. "You're happy that he's out of jail, but you're really not happy it took so long to get there."

Passed by Congress in 1996, the CDA generally immunizes Internet service providers and Internet users from liability for torts committed by others using their website, even if the provider fails to take action after receiving actual notice of the harmful or offensive content.

More than 300 different courts have prevented similar cases from going to trial based on the law, including other lawsuits involving Richie's website.

An initial trial in Jones' case in January, 2013, ended with a hung jury.

In August 2010, Jones won a default judgment of $11 million when Richie didn't show up for a court hearing. It eventually was determined Jones' attorney at the time, Eric Deters, had filed the case against the wrong company that had a similar name. The judgment, whose amount was decided by a judge, was set aside in favor of a new trial.

While Jones was waging her legal battle against Richie, she became embroiled in a criminal case.

In late 2011, Jones began a relationship with Cody York, a 17-year-old student at Dixie Heights High School, where Jones taught. York wasn't Jones' student and was a longtime friend of her family.

After York's ex-girlfriend notified school officials, an investigation was launched.

Jones pleaded no contest in October 2012 to sexual misconduct and custodial interference. In a deal with prosecutors, Jones was sentenced to five years of probation but no jail time, and she didn't have to register as a sex offender.

Also, Jones resigned as a teacher and is no longer a Bengals cheerleader. She and York, now 19, became engaged last year.

During the trial, Gingras showcased lies that Jones had initially told about her involvement with York to cover-up the relationship. Gingras said it damaged Jones' credibility, but Deters said the incident should have no bearing on the defamation case, which preceded the criminal case by more than a year.

Richie called Jones a "child molester" on Instagram. Gingras apologized in court for the comment.

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